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Native Queens:
Large Community, Scattered Lives

By Shams Tarek

There are more Native Americans living in Queens than any other borough in the City, but you wouldn’t know it by walking down the street.

Native Americans in Queens — as in the rest of the City — live scattered, independent lives, with no single neighborhood to call their own and very few organizations dedicated to serving them.

With pow wow season in full swing, though, Natives and Native-watchers in Queens stand a better chance than ever to connect with each other and learn about a society that despite its trendiness is slowly assimilating and dying.

Where Is Everybody?

The 2000 Census reports that there are over 11,000 Native Americans living in Queens, and over 27,000 people here who are at least partially Native.

St. Albans resident Lonnie Harrington Moonfire believes the Census undercounts Natives and says so in his soon-to-be published book.
Tribune Photo by Shams Tarek

The City Planning Department likes to shrink those numbers in its own calculations, and every Queens Native American you come across will likely double them.

In African American and Hispanic circles, many will even triple Census figures, citing intermarriage with slaves and South America’s native population.

Historian Lonnie Harrington Moonfire, a Seminole, Cherokee and Choctaw from St. Albans who’s publishing a book called “Both Sides of the Water: Essayson African and Native American Inter Actions,” said Natives are “grossly undercounted” in the Census and estimates up to 30,000 in Southeast Queens alone.

Beth Anna Moonray Ferguson, a Cherokee and Blackfoot Native who lives in Corona Heights, estimates that “Eighty percent of African Americans have Native American blood whether they know it or not.”

In Queens, according to the Census, the highest concentrations of Native Americans today are in the southern half of the borough, in Community Districts 9 (Woodhaven and Richmond Hill), 10 (Ozone Park, South Ozone Park and Howard Beach) and 12 (Jamaica, South Jamaica, Hollis and St. Albans).

Springfield Gardens resident Suni Mini Paw sell crafts at the borough’s pow wows, which she said are the best ways for Natives to connect.
Tribune Photo by Shams Tarek

 Historical accounts of the borough argue that people lived all over, from north to south.

In Bayside and Flushing were the Matinecocks; the tribe still meets regularly in a Flushing church under the leadership of Chief Little Fox.  The tribe also has a very vocal advocate in Bayside community board member and Native advocate Mandingo Tshaka.

But the rest of what is now Queens was considered the Land of the Rockaway, or Rockaweg as some texts refer to it.  Just to their west, in what is now Brooklyn, were the Canarsie.

The Rockaway people set up communities all across what’s now South and Southeast Queens, where the estuaries leading to Jamaica Bay formed.  Many of their sites in Woodhaven and Ozone Park were woodland villages, while sites in Jamaica, South Jamaica and Springfield Gardens were often set up for fishing and oystering.

Today, the most commonly experienced part of the first Americans’ legacy is the borough’s grid of major avenues and boulevards; many of them, according to historians, follow the paths of the first Native roads hundreds of years ago.

Finding Community

Months of observation and interviews in and about the southern half of the borough, where the federal government thinks most of New York City’s Native Americans are, have led to one common thread: this is one scattered and highly invisible population.

Bird Singing, a Springfield Gardens resident, said that while the borough’s Native population is scattered,
its members always seem to find
each other.
Tribune Photo by Shams Tarek

Several of Queens’ top historians, as well as the Central Library’s authoritative research collection, the Long Island Division, couldn’t produce any specific information about Native Americans currently living in the southern half of the borough. Information about the Matinecock tribe and the Northern Queens’ Native legacy was easy to get, but there was little awareness of current doings in the community.

The same was true at the Manhattan-based American Indian Community House (AICH), the biggest service and cultural organization dedicated to Native Americans in the entire city.

The group’s director, Rosemarie Richmond, said she wasn’t aware of any Native groups in South or Southeast Queens.

The Tribune got the same response from Leota Lone Dog, curator of an exhibit at the AICH called “Native New Yorkers,” which chronicled Native Americans in New York City through photographs and documents.  There wasn’t a single reference to Queens in the entire exhibit.

Chief Osceola Townsend, a retired federal agent of African and Matinecock ancestry who splits his time between homes in the Rockaways and Florida, blames the federal government on keeping Native Americans scattered and disjointed, noting that so many Native tribes aren’t officially recognized and have no land of their own.  Lack of media coverage also hurts Natives,  Townsend said.

“This country doesn’t give a damn about the Native Americans,” Townsend said.

But not all Native Americans think alike on the topic.

Bird Singing, a Springfield Gardens resident who has Tainos and Carib blood and is Crow by adoption, said that even though the Native population is scattered, Native Americans tend to find each other.

“I can just talk to anyone in the supermarket and they’ll ask me, ‘Are you Native American?  My mother is Native American!’ Or ‘My uncle is Native American!’” Bird Singing said.

Keeping Native Culture Alive

There’s one Native organization that’s publicly engaged in the southern half of the borough — the Hollis-based Northeastern Native American Association (NENAA).

The group, which says it has over 400 members, about half from South and Southeast Queens, seems to surface publicly about once a year, for its annual summer pow wow.

It held its 13th annual pow wow at Ozone Park’s Cedar Lane Stables, home of the Federation of Black Cowboys, on July 19 and 20.  The event had always been held at Roy Wilkins Park in St. Albans, but city budget cuts forced it onto other land.

The group was born when St. Albans’ Chief Winter Flower, of Ramapo and Lanape descent, was walking down 150th Street in Jamaica in 1990 and came across Chief Little Fox’s Native products store, now defunct.

The two immediately hit it off, and with some other local Native Americans started the NENAA.  Today, Chief Winter Flower runs the group.

The group currently meets monthly at Chief Winter Flower’s home; lately discussions have been about last week’s pow wow.  Besides its annual pow wow, the NENAA has held mini-pow wows, prison visits to incarcerated Native Americans, library visits and school visits.

The group is also looking for funding for a permanent space for itself, so it can start a collection of documents and films and have a regular meeting and performance space.

Despite the seemingly unanimous opinion among Natives otherwise, Chief Winter Flower denies that there’s no collective sense of community among South and Southeast Queens’ Native Americans.

But she does acknowledge that the population is not as connected as it should be, and cites assimilation into contemporary American society as the reason.

“A lot of people won’t own up to their Native heritage,” said the chief, who was interested in Native culture since she was a young child.  “[And] a lot of people don’t know; they ask for genealogies.”

‘The Moccasin Grapevine’

Moonfire, a charismatic, articulate man with old-school aviator sunglasses who is the NENAA’s in-house historian and pow wow MC, cites the oral tradition as still one of the most effective ways for Native Americans to stay connected.

“Word gets around by the Moccasin Grapevine, or the Moccasin Telegraph,” Moonfire said.

The grapevine grows thickest at pow wows, those summer festivals of fry bread, spiritual dances and handmade jewelry for sale that most people take in as entertainment.

Suni Mini Paw, a Springfield Gardens resident who was selling her crafts and clothing at the NENAA’s recent pow wow, said the gatherings serve Native Americans more than they do the culture-hungry public.  Pow wows are like annual family reunions and places to meet other Native Americans – maybe even distant relatives – for the first time, she said.

Mini Paw said her Native heritage was never discussed when she was young, as it was “looked down on years ago.”

“The whole thing was to just blend — to not appear different,” Mini Paw said.

Mini Paw started researching her Native heritage about 15 or 20 years ago, she said, but by then, most of her relatives were dead.  Her mother started telling her about her family’s past just last year, but the effects of Alzheimer’s diesease is making that endeavor fruitless.

It was at a pow wow last year that Mini Paw made some real progress.

A stranger at the festival told her she looked familiar; it turned out that the man is Mini Paw’s stepmother’s cousin.  The two now stay in touch.

“That’s the point of these things,” Mini Paw said.  “They’re a chance to connect people.”

Coming To A Farm Near You

The next pow wow in Queens will be the 25th annual Thunderbird Mid-Summer Pow Wow, from July 25 to 27 at the Queens County Farm Museum in Floral Park.

For more information about the pow wow, visit www.queensfarm.org or call (718) 347-3276.

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